Americans hate quitters. Never quit. Don’t give up. Stay the course. Persevere. Try hard, and then try harder. But what if it’s the wrong course? What if you’re hitting and hitting, and then hitting even harder, and you’re in the wrong game?
I’m reading Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open: An Autobiography.” It’s moment has passed, I know. It was published in 2009, and the only new revelation — besides the somewhat shocking assertion that he hated tennis, that he always hated tennis — was that he’d used crystal meth. It was all the press cared about. Juicy tidbits that masqueraded as “news” to report on. But it was also lauded for being well-written. I’d heard him interviewed, and I sensed there was something there for me just now.
Andre was herded into tennis with a cattle prod by his monomaniacal father at a very young age. While he doesn’t call it that, the punishing training, first by his father and then at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, amounted to abuse. Being forced to practice for exhausting hours on end, just as his older siblings had been, unlike them, he had massive talent. So commenced his ride on a frantic not-so-merry-go-round.
Andre began winning tennis out of fear of the consequences of losing. By the time he started winning at majors, he had a hand-picked team of helpers (mockingly referred to in the tennis press as his “entourage”) whom he supported even as they enabled him. He didn’t want to let them down, so he was trapped. He was a mess of anxieties and internal conflict. There seemed to be no alternative. Since this all started at such a young age, he didn’t know who he really was nor what he would even do in life, absent tennis and were he to quit.
It was only in those rare spaces in between tennis and self-destruction that Andre experienced the first glimpses of what would give him the deepest satisfaction: helping others. While it took a force of will, rationalization, and a team to get him onto the practice court and through the tournaments, he’d gladly stayed up all night to be with his trainer Gil Reyes while his daughter Kayley was hurting in the hospital. And he noticed.
He really found his swing not after the first set, but after he started a center for underprivileged and overlooked kids in Las Vegas that would become the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. His tennis achievements gave him the clout and the money to do what his life really called him to do: philanthropy.
When I need to make a change in my life, what works best for me is to model something or someone outside my life with which I can identify. I look for books, movies, plays, and real-life stories for inspiration. I change by reflecting or mimicking the strategies that resonate. Different as I am from Andre Agassi (a tennis player and personality I greatly admired during his playing days, an admiration I shared with my tennis-loving dad), I am sniffing something similar in my own life.
This late in my own game, I am coming to terms with having spent most (but not all) of my adult careers doing things I was very good at. I liked them well enough, and I really liked being good at them. But I didn’t love them. At this moment, quitting the game isn’t an option. I’m still training and still competing in my own virtual matches. But I strongly suspect my bliss and my important contributions — and probably my greatest successes — lie outside the virtual tennis court I’ve been playing on.
After hitting bottom, Andre rebuilt himself, married the love of his life, and enjoyed his game which he finally dominated soundly. I will learn how he found a way to align himself and his game. How he makes peace with the game, and then how he quits. Because you don’t just up and quit your life assignment, especially when other people depend on you. Even if it’s a means to a different end, you finish the job, preferably as a winner, in triumph. Then you can quit for real. And begin forever.
Years ago, I discovered a little gem of a book called Introduction to Spiritual Harmony by Jerry Stocking. It was one of those books that possessed nugget after nugget of life-changing or life-affirming wisdom. During a particularly trying transitional period in my life, I was moved to pick up another of Stocking’s books, “How to Win by Quitting.” I don’t know exactly what it was I was supposed to be quitting because I’d just lost my job.
In it, Stocking progressively “quits” all the games in his life, because if you are playing games, you are either losing (not a good thing) or winning (and someone else is losing — also not a good thing.) Following this simple if tenuous proposition, Jerry finally has only one thing left to quit (short of ending his own life): his family.
He lost me at that point. I thought it was too extreme. But, on his journey to seemingly impossible Buddhist-like non-attachment, he just kept going until the things he was most attached to, his wife and children, were all that were left to quit. Conflicted as he was about it, he decided it was imperative. And they did not try to stop him. They were all freaked out, though.
I’ll tell you what happened. Since he truly intended to follow through on his promise, whatever that would look like and whatever the consequences, he barely had to take a step outside his house before the freedom of having quit allowed him to . . . come back! I really couldn’t feel my way into that at the time. I felt manipulated, like the whole book itself was exactly the same kind of game Stocking excoriated: a mental game. I quit my family but ha-ha, guess what, I didn’t really have to.
Now, suddenly I get it. It takes more courage to quit than to persevere. If you’re attached to a person or an idea, you cannot really love them they way you think you do. You need them too much. And you will act from that energy — of retention, of holding on, of securing, of keeping.
It’s a difficult trick, quitting. You can’t just pretend. You have to really quit. And, trust me — trust Andre — that is way beyond hard work. It takes the most courage you can summon, and then some.